Can We Mandate Safety?
Montgomery Journal, MCSM Safety Part 1
By Bob Culver & Chris Conte
We as citizens are quite regularly exposed to the idea that our
world is not safe. To some of us this is not alarming, life is accepted as
not an inherently safe prospect, life is not a dress rehearsal! To them, lack
of safety means some extremely unusual condition has arisen to severely
increase the normal daily hazards, where daily activity has been disrupted
and unacceptable hazard has been substituted. Others, however, may be
more worrisome. The concept that our world is not safe compels them to
acknowledge daily hazards, but also to seek to eliminate them all. The
question, and the problem, arises when this obsessive pursuit of safety
clashes with reality, practicality and personal liberty, creating unforseen
and clearly unintended consequences.
By way of illustration let us evaluate the broad question of "safety"
as it applies to firearms in the United States. It is clear that improper use
of a firearm by an individual is capable of resulting in injury. To begin this
discussion we will limit the scope of analysis to the "accidental" injury
resulting from firearm use, not criminal mis-use. To be clear right from the
start, it is necessary to point out that serious firearm users and instructors
in firearm safety, universally teach that there is no such thing as a firearm
accident. There are unintended discharges that cause consequences, and
since this was unintended it is commonly classified as an accident.
The unintended discharge of a firearm comes about because one
or more of the several well understood Rules of safe firearm use have been
violated. Rules such as; treat all firearms as if they are loaded, never point
at another individual, be sure of your target and what is behind it, never put
your finger on the trigger until ready to fire, always keep a firearm pointed in
a safe direction, etc. These "rules" are so simple and logical that if
questioned on the matter even the uninitiated could formulate them from the
known characteristics of firearms and the consequences of mis-use.
Intended discharges which cause injury should probably not be classified
as accidents unless another safety rule is violated and an "accidental"
consequence occurs, such as not being sure of your intended target or
what is behind it, the classical "hunting accident".
Presuming that accidental injuries are significant, frequently
recurring and of high cost to society, and that they need to be reduced, a
methodology of reduction can be proposed. As with driving, sky diving,
SCUBA, skate boarding, etc. proper training always results in a safer (and
less frustrating and more enjoyable) experience. Indeed, familiarity with
objects and actions is at the heart of proper use of instruments and the
basis for the first class of perception of safety, potential hazards exist, the
normal process of life has not become unduly hazardous and with time and
more familiarity potential hazards are overcome.
As with most human activity, the incidence of harmful actions may
be reduced by other passive measures, such as by seat belts and airbags.
Neither are really needed to operate an automobile and in many minor
collisions they may be of no consequence whatever in reducing injury. But
in the infrequent event of a serious event, when you may suffer serious
injury and you need the seat belt and air bag, they are helpful. When you
need them, you really need them and they can be life savers! Conversely,
if improperly used they can be more hazardous than the minor collisions
which trigger their activation. Much attention is being paid recently to the
unintended deaths caused by deployment of airbags.
Firearms are not unlike all other tools, they can be used for harm
or for good. Like a hammer they are useful but potentially hazardous and
likewise both are basically quite simple and well understood. Firearms
produced in the last 50 years have benefitted from the experience of the
preceding 200 years and have evolved. Functional and utility impediments
have been overcome and inherent safety has been enhanced. The modern
firearm is developed to the point that it rarely fails to function properly, after
tens of thousands of cycles it will still function perfectly. Today's firearms
are reliable to perhaps 99.999% of uses. In engineering terms that's known
as 5-9's reliability, one failure in 100,000 cycles. That is not that any
firearm will function for 100,000 cycles without failure, that is beyond the
expected life of some of the critical components. Instead it means that of
100 firearms, each with about a dozen functional parts, fired 100 times
each, a failure to function, exclusive of ammunition failures, is expected to
be exceedingly rare. The actual industry experience may be even better.
Occasionally, like any mechanical instrument the firearm will need
cleaning and servicing, but it almost always functions fully as intended.
Conversely, the unintended discharge of a properly functioning firearm,
without the action of a person, is virtually unknown. Even when dropped,
thrown, pummeled, folded, spindled and mutilated it is almost impossible to
cause a firearm to discharge without the purposeful disengagement of one
or more safety devices and the operation of its mechanism by an individual.
How can we improve on this?
The short answer is that we can not. Left on their own, firearms
just sit and rust. Used and carried by rational individuals they function
reliably when desired but remain inert otherwise. Wilful improper operation,
however, can not be anticipated or restricted by the firearm itself. This now
brings us to the potential of "smart gun" technology and its analysis.
This analysis should not be done on its potential to be developed
and applied, for surely it has that potential. Today, almost any technical
system can be built, and after potential tradeoffs, implemented and be
made to function. However, the desired results and unintended
consequences, part of the tradeoff, are not so positively forecast. Each
layer of additional control of the instrument will also entail additional
mechanisms and decisions made by a once uniquely simple and reliable
mechanical device. In to days' age of microelectronics and sub miniature
mechanical actuators it is easy to visualize a Buck Rodgers type of
sophistication to almost any item. But reality, and the laws of physics,
rears its inopportune head in the form of; Battery size, capacity and life;
Sensor technology and inherent ability to resolve an authorized user; Dust,
dirt and various bodily fluids and their interaction with the above; etc.
Previously we had described a system reliability or 99.999% or better. We
must now estimate the reliability of the systems to be added to create a
"smart gun". Assume a battery has a long term reliability of 99%, the
sensor will function 99% of the time, the system will recognize the
permitted individual 99% of the time and the mechanical linkage, probably
the most reliable part of the system, will function timely in 99.9% of cases.
This yields a system reliability of 97.912%. Now apply a little dirt to the
sensor, an improper grip, use of the other hand or a second alternative user
who must be identified, etc. and assume a very generous function factor of
99% for all this. The system reliability is now down to 96.93%. The details
here are indefinite but the implication is inescapable, proper function will be
degraded. In the above case perhaps 2 or 3 attempts to use the firearm
may result in it not functioning. Failure of the system can go the other way
to not prohibit operation when desired to do so. In that case perhaps 2 or 3
tries out of 100 desired prohibited operations, it will actually function.
In the final analysis the failure to function will put individuals at risk.
Anyone relying on a firearm for defense against any predator, human or
otherwise will be guessing at what will happen when the firearm is used.
Those trained and familiar with firearms, as first mentioned in this
discussion, will be better served to rely on their own initiative for both proper
operation and safe usage. Some will not be trained and not familiar with
firearms but because of the presence of "smart gun" technology will thus be
depending exclusively on a mechanical system. That system may fail,
leaving them without the backup of training, knowledge and ability to avoid
Now we are ready to try to answer the question of mandating
safety. Today we can not depend on added layers of restraint on firearms,
be they "smart gun" technology or other laws controlling the availability or
use by otherwise law abiding citizens. The application of additional
controls, regardless of the actual implementation, will both encumber the
legitimate use and provide false security. Regardless of the reliability of
future technology, the addition of that technology inherently reduces the
reliability of the device. The need for additional safety has not even been
addressed yet. The definition of accident, as opposed to willful action still
needs to be examined. The current trends of firearm injury as opposed to
criminal intentional use needs to be carefully defined. And finally, the
unintended consequences of attempting massive controls, all in the name
of safety, have not been considered. But that, as they say, is another
Robert Culver Is Co-Chairman Of MCSM
Chris Conte Is Legal Counsel For MCSM